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Fantasy football 2014 draft prep: Atlanta Falcons team preview

Julio Jones racked up 41 receptions for 580 receiving yards and two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 last season. Photo:

Julio Jones racked up 41 receptions for 580 receiving yards and two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 last season.

Any discussion about the most disappointing teams in 2013 has to include the Atlanta Falcons. Following three seasons that included three trips to the playoffs, two NFC South titles and an overall record of 36-12, the Falcons went 4-12 and were outscored by 90 points. The passing game was rendered toothless by Julio Jones’ season-ending foot injury in Week 5, and an ankle issue precluded Roddy White from being healthy all season. Steven Jackson was brought in to breathe some life into the rushing attack, but he missed four games due to injury and ran for just 543 yards on 157 carries. The team’s offense ranked No. 24 on Pro Football Focus, while the passing game ranked No. 16 and the run game No. 18.

Despite all that, Matt Ryan had a respectable fantasy season. He ranked ninth among quarterbacks in fantasy points scored, ahead of Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Tony Romo and Tom Brady. Ryan threw for 4,515 yards, 26 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and while fantasy owners would definitely like to see more than 6.94 yards per attempt, ultimately it’s the counting stats that matter. If a year ago at this time, someone from the future came back and said that Harry Douglas would lead the Falcons in receptions in 2013, Ryan wouldn’t have sniffed the top 12 in quarterback average draft position. And yet he played like a starter in 12-team leagues.

Ryan’s 2014 prospects certainly are a whole lot brighter. Most importantly, Jones is 100 percent healthy. He was the No. 4 receiver by ADP last season, and through five games he was justifying that price. He had 41 receptions for 580 yards and two touchdowns, an average of 14 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. For comparison’s sake, only Josh Gordon (16.2), Calvin Johnson (15.8) and Demaryius Thomas (14.2) scored more than 14 points per game last year. In other words, Ryan will once again have one of the best receivers in the league at his disposal.

White's nagging ankle injury essentially robbed Ryan of his second-best playmaker. Go take a look at White’s game logs from last season, though, and you’ll see an awfully conspicuous late-season run. In the final five games of the year, White caught 43 passes for 500 yards and two touchdowns. Once he was finally able to put the ankle injury behind him, White was the exact same receiver who entered 2013 with six straight seasons of at least 80 catches, 1,150 yards and six scores.

The Falcons had the third-worst pass-blocking offensive line by Pro Football Focus’ metrics last season, so they went about fixing that problem during the offseason. They completely revamped the right side of the line, signing guard Jon Asamoah, whom Pro Football Focus ranked the 14th-best pass-blocking guard in the league last year, and drafting Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in the draft. The line should be a much-improved group this season.

With Jones and White healthy, Ryan has one of the best receiver duos in the league out wide. He has an improved line in front of him and a run game that can’t possibly be less effective than it was last year, especially since the passing game is back at full strength. Ryan is the No. 5 quarterback on my board, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford.

Most overvalued player

Jacquizz Rodgers, RB – I know, I know, it’s hard to be overvalued when you have as little value as Rodgers does this year. Still, I can’t even fathom why he’s being drafted at all. He has had plenty of opportunity to carve out a role in the Atlanta offense during his three years in the league, and he’s never reached 800 yards from scrimmage in a season. The Falcons selected Florida State product Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of last May’s draft, and he is likely to be Jackson’s primary backup. Don’t even bother with Rodgers on draft day.

Most undervalued player

Devonta Freeman, RB – When the draft gets outside the top-40 running backs, it’s time to shoot for upside, and Freeman offers a ton of that this season. It’s no secret that Jackson is on the downside of his career. He’ll be 31 years old when the season starts and is carrying every bit of the mileage that comes with more than 3,000 career touches. The Falcons running game lacked any sort of firepower last year, and part of that was because Jackson was hobbled for a good chunk of the season. The team will be better off using him less frequently, but getting more out of him when he is on the field. Freeman ran for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns with the Seminoles last year en route to being named to the All-ACC First Team. He should have a significant role in the Atlanta offense this season, and that makes him a great flier in fantasy leagues.

Depth chart

QB: Matt Ryan, T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree
RB: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith
WR: Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Darius Johnson, Devin Hester, Courtney Roby
TE: Levine Toilolo, Mickey Shuler, Jacob Pedersen

Defensive analysis

  Total vs. Pass vs. Run Points allowed
NFL rank 27 21 31 27
  vs. QB vs. WR vs. RB vs. TE
Fantasy rank 26 19 25 24

The Falcons defense was completely unusable from a fantasy standpoint all season long. Its 32 sacks were tied for the second lowest in the league, and only six teams had fewer than its 21 takeaways. Much of that same lackluster unit is back this year, and that means the Falcons should not be on your radar, unless they prove worthy of the fantasy community’s attention early in the season.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons had the worst pass rush in the league last year. The team plans to scrap the 4-3 that was so ineffective last year, and will switch to a 3-4 base look. New Falcons Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai will join Jonathan Babineaux on the line, with Kroy Biermann, Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Jonathan Massaquoi expected to start in the middle. Osi Umenyiora had a bit of a down year during his first season in Atlanta, but he will again factor into the outside linebacker rotation. Soliai was a particularly good signing given the change to a 3-4, given the success he has had in the scheme in Miami. While that will make the overall unit better, nose tackles typically don’t register as IDP players.

Worrilow is likely the best IDP in Atlanta. He had 127 tackles and two sacks as a rookie, and will probably be asked to do more in the new base formation. Joplo Bartu will also have more responsibilities in his second year, and deserves consideration late in IDP leagues.

The secondary is a largely forgettable group that Pro Football Focus ranked 26th in pass coverage last year. Strong safety William Moore is the best player of the bunch, registering 85 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two sacks last year. Corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and free safety Dwight Lowery can safely be ignored in IDP leagues.

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